Monthly Archives: November 2015

Being There for Our Seniors

this a text version of my shabbat sermon from 11/29/15

I’ve learned over the years that the Friday after Thanksgiving is generally a pretty busy day for rabbis.  After all, it is a family oriented weekend, people come in to town, so the day after Thanksgiving is a popular day for unveilings, sometimes baby namings, and even for weddings.  Yesterday morning I had two unveilings.  They happened to be in the same cemetery an hour apart, and as it was a nice day I spent the in between time wandering around and reading the tombstones.  And while doing so I saw something on a tombstone that I’ve never seen before in my life, but that I suspect I will see more of in the years to come.

As you are aware, most tombstones are inscribed with three things:  the name of the person, often in English and Hebrew, a listing of their immediate family relationships – in other words, they were a mother, grandmother, wife, and sister;  and the last thing?  Their age.  And yesterday I saw a tombstone where the person’s age was 111.

Now it is rare in a cemetery to see people who lived into their late 90s, even rarer to see someone who was 100 or older.  But 111 is extremely rare, to the point where it is the oldest age I can ever recall see recorded on a tombstone.  And I suspect -at least for the next few years – that will probably remain a record for me.  But I also suspect, in the next few years, I will see more and more tombstones that mark a person’s age at a hundred or more.  And that is because of one very simple statistical fact – namely we are all living longer.

This is something we’ve all been aware of for some time, whether we know the actual statistics, or just know it from anecdotal evidence in our own lives.  A couple of years ago I officiated at a graveside service where the daughter of the diseased – the daughter! – was 82.  It happens – rarely, but it does happen – that couples today are married 70 plus years.  It is very common that people live in to their 80s today.  We are fond of saying ‘that 40 is the new 30, or 70 is the new 50.’  And the statistics we have about aging support all the anecdotal evidence.  In 2010, about 13% of the US population was over 65 – right around 40 million people.  In another decade or so projections are that 72 million people in the US will be 65 or older, about 20% of the total population.  And the demographic slice that is growing the fastest in America is the 85 and over population.

Now it goes without saying that this is wonderful blessing for many families, and for many individuals.  I really only knew two of my biological grandparents.  My mother’s mother was dead before I was born, and my zadie died when I was just 11 years old.  Young people today grow up knowing their grandparents well, because their grandparents are still alive when they – the grandchildren –  are in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s.  So people have more time to spend with their loved ones, more time to impart their wisdom to the generations of their families, more time to watch grandchildren and great grandchildren grow.

But with all of the blessings that come with longer life there are many challenges as well.  Some of these are well documented.  As people age they commonly need more health care, so an aging population is straining the health care system today, both in terms of resources and costs.  There is also the question of housing – where will folks live when they reach a stage of their lives where they can’t live independently anymore?  And some of the most painful conversations I have with families revolve around precisely that issue – at what point must you take someone’s independent living away from them, because it is not safe for them anymore to live by themselves?

But this morning I want to touch on a different challenge that I see with the longer lives we are living, this challenge harder to quantify in terms of statistics, but in my mind no less important, and that is the deep feeling of loneliness that so many of our seniors struggle with every day.  This morning’s Torah portion recounts the well known story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious attacker in the middle of the night.  But you’ll remember that before the wrestling Jacob enacts an odd plan.  He is traveling with hundreds of people, including his family, but he sends them all away just as night is falling, and then the Torah tell us this about Jacob:  ויותר יעקב לבדו – Jacob remained alone.  There was no one there to stand by his side during one of the most difficult moments of his life.  There was no one he could talk to, no one to share his burdens with, no one to hold him and reassure him.  No one to say I care about you and I love you.

For whatever reason, Jacob chose that fate himself, he sent everyone he knew to the other side of the river.  But many of our seniors are alone by no choice of their own.  Almost by definition if you live into your 90s many of the people you have most intimately shared your life with are gone.  You have probably lost your spouse, your siblings, and many of your friends.  If you are lucky enough to have family in town – children and grandchildren – that can help tremendously, but the truth is the children and the grandchildren have their own busy lives, and although they might visit frequently, even every day, it is common that their are hours and hours and hours every day when seniors are alone.

I will be the first to say that I do not know the answer here, I do not pretend to have a magic formula that will take away the loneliness that so many of our seniors experience.  I do believe that education is an important piece of the puzzle.  Families are all too often groping in the dark trying to figure out what to do and how to help their parents and grandparents.  And there is information out there, and specialists as well, that can help them navigate the hard decisions and difficult conversations they face.  In Baltimore Jewish Community Services has wonderful resources for seniors and their families.  So that is a piece.

I think also there is an important role for synagogues to play in this puzzle, and although we work hard to stay in touch with our seniors, we need a more comprehensive system to meet the needs of members who have been affiliated with their congregations in many cases for decades.  There is a lot of work to be done.

But if I don’t know exactly what the answers are, I do know that the Jewish community should be leading the way on this issue, not just locally, but nationally as well.   The Torah itself, our core document, teaches this:  מפני שיבה תקום והדרת פני זקן – you shall rise before the aged, and show deference to the elderly – ויראת מאליקך – in doing so you shall show reverence for God –  אני ה׳-  I am Adonai.

As our elderly population grows in the years ahead, may we as a community find blessings in the path that we walk on together, revering our seniors every step of the way, and together with them finding even deeper meaning in the long journey of our lives.

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Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Bible, community, continiuty, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, synagogue, Torah, Uncategorized

The Infinitesimal Grand Canyon

The phrase ‘Grand Canyon moment’ is often used to refer to the experience of seeing a breath taking natural vista and sensing, in that vision, God’s presence.  The experience is in large part (pun intended) about scope – the humbling vastness of  great mountains and endless oceans, things of unimaginable size that somehow exist in our world.  In their vastness we feel small, yet connected, filled with awe but at the very same time knowing that we are intricately intertwined with God’s universe.

But God is also in the details.  The human body with its thousands of working parts and the human brain and its 100 trillion synapses.  The geometric shape of a snowflake.  The precise chemistry required to make life possible.  These things are small, many of them invisible.  But in their own way they are no less breath taking than the Alps, or the Atlantic in a storm, or the great chasm at the heart of the Grand Canyon.

When Elijah the prophet seeks God during a moment of crisis in I Kings 19 he experiences a series of powerful events.  First a a thunderous wind comes, so strong it splits mountains and shatters rock.  Then an earthquake shakes the very ground Elijah is standing on.  Finally, a consuming fire.  In each case the Bible tells us that God was not there.  But  then Elijah sensed God’s presence in a soft, almost indistinguishable sound – the ‘still, small, voice.’

We often say that some people are ‘big picture,’ while others are detail oriented.  Evidently, God is both.IMG_3215 2

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, Jewish thought, mindfulness, photograph, Torah, Uncategorized

The Thread

I’ve seen it a thousand times, over and over and over again. The ark is opened, and the congregation rises reflexively. The Torahs are resting there, dressed in their finery, the elegant cloaks and silver crowns that beautify them and remind us of royalty. Someone reaches into the ark to lift the scroll, placing it carefully in the arms of the hazzan, the leader of prayer. There is a jingling of metal, silver bells ring softly, the breastplate slides slightly as the Torah moves from one person to the next. Everyone watches, eyes alight with – what? History? Tradition? Yes. And perhaps also a sense of connection and continuity, of momentarily touching something that is eternal, that was, is, and will be. A ritual enacted, the same each time with subtle variations. Same as it ever was.

But this time, for some reason I will never know, my breath caught in my throat. I was moved, struck in some new way by the power of that simple moment. Maybe it was the way the young man so reverentially lifted that Torah, with grace and almost awe reaching forward to grasp it, carefully and gently placing it into the Hazzan’s embrace. Maybe it was how I know the men, the respect I have for them, the love I know they have in their hearts for our tradition. I suspect the way that shadows cast from some tree’s leaves danced on the wall had something to do with it, and also the soft early morning sunshine slowly rising. And that powerful sense we sometimes have of time’s compression, of the swiftly moving years somehow collapsing, of these particular men with their phylacteries and prayer shawls, enacting this ancient ritual that has been going on uninterrupted, century after century, generation after generation.

There was an imperceptible shift in the air and the moment passed. But as the old scroll was carried through the congregation something sacred hung in the air, just out of site, just there. Remember the great and enigmatic line at the end of King Lear? “Look there! Look there!” Whatever did he see? I looked, and it was gone. But a soft soul-tingling sense lingers on.

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The Continuity Challenge

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/7/15 – I am hoping to address some of the issues raised in the sermon through this blog over the next couple of weeks –

It was in 1997, now 18 years ago, when Alan Dershowitz published a book entitled ‘the Vanishing American Jew.’ The book was Dershowitz’s reaction to looking around at the Jewish community of the late 90s and not liking what he saw. Fundamentally, he was worried about Jewish continuity – the ability of the community to maintain its distinctive identity from one generation to the next. When the book hit the stands Dershowitz joined a long list of Jews throughout the centuries who have bemoaned the state of the Judaism of their time, worrying that in one way or another, theirs would be the last generation to truly care about living a Jewish life and preserving that life for the next generation.

That list of Jews is so long that it goes all the way back to the Torah itself, and the ancient and unknown author who put together the text that we still read to this day. It is easy to argue that Jewish continuity, if not the central concern of the Torah, is one of its top two or three priorities. Think for a moment just in the book of Genesis that we are reading right now, with all of its stories about the birth of children and how difficult it is to bring children into the world. And why is that such a crucial issue? Because if you don’t have children, you don’t have a next generation to carry on the Covenant that God began with Abraham. At its essence Genesis is a story of continuity – of the difficulties and challenges of transmitting that covenant from one generation to the next.

Without question that is precisely the central concern in this morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. Sarah’s death is recorded in the second verse of the portion, and it sets into motion a series of actions undertaken by Abraham that are all focused on the issue of continuity. The first thing Abraham does is to purchase land, to create a familial homestead, in and of itself something that establishes a sense of identity that can run through generations. But the second thing Abraham does is what? He goes about the process of ensuring that Isaac his son will be married, so that there will be a next generation – Abraham’s grandchildren – with the potential of carrying the covenant forward. And so the Torah tells the long and somewhat convoluted story of Abraham sending his servant out into the world, making him promise he’ll return with a suitable wife for Isaac.

God actually gives Abraham a promise of continuity five times in the Torah. In chapters 12, 13, 15, 17, and 22 of Genesis God tells Abraham, variously, that he will become a great nation, that he will be the father of many nations, that his descendants will number either like the stars of the sky or the sands at the sea, or both. Abraham seems to take God at God’s word, but the reader knows that the reality doesn’t quite match the beautiful picture that God paints. Abraham doesn’t have many children, he has two – Ishmael, the son of Hagar, who is estranged from his father, and Isaac, Sarah’s son. When Abraham dies, at the end of this morning’s portion, the question of whether the covenant will be carried into the next generation is very much still on the table. It will remain so throughout the rest of the Bible, with each generation facing its own particular threats, with each generation struggling to keep that covenant alive.

We might very well say that that question is still on the table today. Dershowitz’s book was an example, but anyone who spends any time in the professional Jewish community knows that ‘continuity’ is a buzz word that is constantly bandied about. The truth is much of what Dershowitz wrote in his book 18 years ago was prophetic – intermarriage rates have continued to rise precipitously, synagogue affiliation rates have dropped, and traditional Jewish behavior – like engaging in home rituals – has decreased. Arguably today we have the most poorly Jewishly educated population that we’ve had in modern times. And Jewish identity seems to be morphing into something that is based on ethnicity more than faith – if you will – on bagels more than belief. We might very well sit here today, looking out at the Jewish landscape, and wonder – like Abraham probably did so long ago – how will God’s promises of a Jewish community that is like the stars in the sky ever come to pass when instead the very opposite seems to be happening?

Abraham’s story and this morning’s Torah portion may give us at least one answer to that question. When he feels that the covenant is most threatened, when Sarah is gone, and Isaac is unmarried, and Abraham has no heirs, he does not pray to God, he does not remind God of the promises that God made, and ask God to fulfill them. Instead, he acts. He puts all of his resources into finding a solution to his problem. He sends his servant to find Isaac a wife. He even marries again, and has six more children with his second wife, just in case things with Isaac don’t work out. Normally when we read Abraham’s story, we think in our minds ‘Abraham was depending on God to make sure the promises of continuity came true.’ But I would argue that in fact it was the opposite – God was depending on Abraham to ensure that there would be a next generation, and a generation after that. God was depending on Abraham to plant the seeds so that one day the Jewish people truly would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky.

And I would say it is the same for us today. The question of Jewish continuity is not something that God will resolve. Instead, it is a challenge for each generation of Jews to face in their own way in their own time. And somehow, in someway, each generation has been successful, and Judaism has survived. Now it is our turn. And the responses to the challenge are all around us. The Jewish renewal movement is one. Growth in adult education programming is another. A process of reimagining what a synagogue might be, how services take place, what it means to have a bar or bat mitzvah, how Hebrew school is structured, a new focus on social action programming, the Birthright program to bring college age Jews to Israel, organizations like Makor in LA, or the Sixth and I synagogue in DC with its contemporary speakers and music series, the formation of a Healing and Spirituality Center here at Beth El – the list could go on and on, but you get the point.

Like Abraham so long ago, the community is putting all of its resources – not only financial, but its creative resources, its intellectual acumen, its passion for Judaism and Jewish life – all of these resources are being brought to bear on our generation’s challenge of continuity. What in the end will happen – what being Jewish will mean to young Jews, what synagogue life will be like, what the Federation world will be like – we really don’t know at this point. But that it will be – that there will be a next generation of young Jews, to take up their generation’s challenge of continuity – of that I have no doubt.

May the work that we are doing today build the foundation that our children and grandchildren can stand on to carry our ancient tradition far into the future –

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Strong Winds

Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
If the good times are all gone, and I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way –

The lyrics are by the Canadian singer/songwriter Ian Tyson, but they were popularized by the great (and mercurial) Neil Young, on his mega-hit 1978 album Comes A Time, in the song entitled Four Strong Winds. The song is soaked in regret and sadness, in loneliness and looking back. It is a tale of human separation, of the walls that sometimes rise between us and those we love. ‘Still I wish you’d change your mind, if I asked you one more time, but we’ve been through this a hundred times or more.’

I was reminded of Young’s plaintive rendition of the song recently during Shabbat services. From where I sit (literally and figuratively) I often know exactly what is going on inside of one person or another. Someone recently had a loss. Another person is worried about a sick relative. The person in the back corner just lost their job. The person on the isle is going through a divorce. And the list could go on and on.

And so it was that I watched a strange and painful scene unfold. Parents and an estranged child, long since grown to adulthood. The couple, sitting at one end of a row, regular Shabbat attenders. Their son entered the room. There has been almost no contact between parent and child for a long time now, the result of a long forgotten but brutal and bitter dispute that left wounds too deep to heal. The son wandered, looking for a seat. Purely serendipitously he sat in his parents row, on the other end, not realizing they were there until it was too late. But now he couldn’t move. It was a point of pride. So he sat with his back angled toward his parents, staring away from them, fixing his eyes on some point in the distance. He held a siddur loosely in his hands.

The parents also suddenly realized their child sat just a few feet down the row from where they were. When was the last time they spoke to their son? A boy they raised, loved, taught how to read, ride a bike, drive a car, catch and throw a baseball. They were so close, the same Shul, the same room, the same time, the same row. But they could not have been further away. Wrinkles of sadness and regret formed around their eyes and in the corners of their mouths.

Soon the service would be over. The son and his parents would rise, not looking at one another but intensely aware of presence, and with it lost time and a long and lonely journey. It would not end this day. The parents slowly walked out, not looking back. The son? He waited an extra minute or two, pretending to look through the pages of a prayer book. Soon he too would be gone.

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